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Hayy Bin Yaqzan: A Contrasting Vision Of Man And Nature
Jul 1, 1998

A Latin translation of Hayy bin Yaqzan by the English Arabist, Edward Pocock, published in Oxford in 1672, was reprinted in 1700. Then, an English translation (from the Latin) was published in London in 1708, the very year Alexander Selkirk, on whose experiences Robinson Crusoe was based, returned to recount the story of how he survived. Defoe must have come across the translation of Hayy, but it is safe to assert that it did not influence Crusoe at all. Despite obvious similarities-Hayy is alone on an uninhabited island, learns to cook, make tools, sew clothes, domesticate animals and plants, etc., and to discover prayer and relationship with God-the whole method, meaning and purpose of Hayy are radically different from Crusoe. (Because Hayy is less widely known than Crusoe, readers will, I hope, excuse the lengthy retelling of what happens in the book.)

The method of Hayy bin Yaqzan

Hayy bin Yaqzan is a philosophical allegory, not a novel. It does not offer a realistic narrative or expect to be popular. The author even wonders if he should have written it at all, fearing that he has touched on profound matters of belief which might confuse (perhaps mislead) an unlearned public (p.61). But the book is not a straightforward philosophical treatise either. It uses narrative elements to represent to the mind what could not be conveyed either by pictures or by conventional realistic narrative.

How Hayy comes to be on the island

Ibn Tufayl offers two explanations. In the first, he says: some people claim that there are certain places on the earth which by virtue of their position relatively to the equator, enjoy a climate so perfect that living beings can be generated there without parents. Hayy was one of these beings. Ibn Tufayl questions the scientific accuracy of the claims made about climatic conditions, but does not dismiss them. The second explanation is as follows:

A nearby island was ruled by a proud, jealous king who had a beautiful sister for whom he wished to appoint a husband of his choosing. But she married Yaqzan, one of the kings courtiers, lawfully but secretly. Needing to keep the secret of the marriage when a son was born, the king's sister placed the child in a wooden casket and set it upon the sea with the prayer (p.5): '0 God Who has created this child from nothing, sustained him in the darkness of the womb and looked after him till he was completely formed, to You I surrender him now, praying that He may receive Your bounty, because of my fear [of] this stubborn, mighty and unjust king. Be with him and abandon him not, 0 Most Merciful.' The casket is thrown to shore with sufficient force to become wedged between some trees, and for the planks of the casket to loosen. The baby's cries are heard by a doe which has just lost its kid to a preying eagle and she suckles the human infant as a substitute. Thus the mother's prayer for her son's survival, and the doe's frustrated maternal instinct, are satisfied by the same means.

Ibn Tufayl now returns to the first account of Hayy's being on the island. He explains, in the manner of a scientific hypothesis, how the life force (likened to a gaseous entity or vapour) might be infused into the clay/mud of the island, how, starting with the cavities of the heart and to support the functioning of the heart, the life force might be urged to form brain, liver, lungs, arteries and veins, etc. Evidently, this hypothesis must have seemed more plausible then than it does now. The point is that it is offered as an account of a biological process unfolding in particular conditions, a process which, in principle, is intelligible and, if one had appropriate instruments, would be observable and observation would confirm or correct the hypothesis. However, while affirming the importance of thinking which utilises hypothesis and observation, Ibn Tufayl leaves his mind open to that which is beyond the reach of direct observation or reasoning. We are allowed to imagine, though we have never seen it, that there could be a perfect island garden where a human life grows without the mediation of human parents. In the world as we actually know it, the fable of the mother who resigns her child to Divine Care in a casket upon the sea, is simply easier to accept.

As the mother's prayer makes clear, human life is already a miracle, a gift from the Most Merciful. Its happening in the world is at the same time an entry into a conditioned existence. By conditioned existence is meant an existence such that, if one event occurs, a second connected with it normally follows, and that if we have witnessed only the second, we may infer the first. In this case. if the doe cannot hear the baby's cries, it cannot go to his assistance. But the cries could not be heard if the planks had not first been loosened by the buffeting of the sea; nor could the doe have been drawn to the baby's plight if its maternal instinct had not been frustrated by the loss of its own kid. The reliability of the sequences of events in conditioned existence is the means whereby reason can conceptualize and theorize about the natural world. This, in turn, enables reason to picture in the mind both what has happened and what could happen. Then, when the picture is clear enough, reason can conceive of and design tools that will make events (experienced or merely possible) happen more easily and quickly.

What is Hayy bin Yaqzan about?

The fact that I-law is parted from his parents after birth is essential to the argument of the book. Ibn Tufayl demonstrates that a human being, not influenced by parents or by their society and culture, is nevertheless fully human in that he seeks the meaning of his being alive and exerts himself until his quest is satisfied by intuitions of the Divine Unity. The natural world sustains Hayy physically. It also feeds his quest for understanding until he comes to the realisation that it, the natural world, cannot satisfy him: the object of his quest lies beyond nature. Nature is not man's enemy nor, though he is a part of it, is it man's ultimate end. Instead, nature is presented as the means whereby the One Who created human life also nurtures and trains and encourages it to its perfection. Culture (all that man does with nature, all of science and technology, arts and civilisation) is a part of the training process, not its goal. The only goal fully worthy of man is understanding the Divine Unity.

The progress of Hayy

The earliest spur to Haw's efforts is the need to survive. Once his mother, the doe, is dead, Hayy has no protector or provider, and so he must fend for himself. He was already aware that, unlike the doe, he is a bi-pedal creature who walks upright with his hands free. Hayy uses those free hands to make and use tools. He covers his nakedness with leaves and skins, not for shame but to protect himself from the climate. With more offensive tools he defends himself against animals that might harm him. Much later, he learns to hunt; later still, to domesticate plants and animals to ensure his food supply. In between, he discovers the potency of fire: whereas all other creatures run from it in terror, Hayy overcomes his fear and uses fire to warm himself, to cook his food and to perfect his artefacts. We may describe this energetic, vigorous surviving as Hayy's physical mastery of the island. The decisive image of it is when he learns to tame animals for use as transport so that he can compensate for his slowness when hunting. Seen astride a horse, Hayy looks the image of the master of his domain.

Physical mastery is accompanied, from the outset, by Hayy's growing conceptual mastery of his world. Although he does not know any human language, he deploys the power (unique to humans) of building in his mind models of everything around him. Thus he is able to compare and distinguish animal species against one another, to distinguish each animal's different parts from the individual whole, and so on. He does the same for the plants on the island, and again for all the non-living things, and he distinguishes the elements composing them. His thinking ranges between and across the classes it makes, recognizing that plants and animals are alike in having "life", while non-living things, though incapable of growth, are like living matter in being subject to decay, as he has witnessed in the erosion of rocks. He observes the differences between solid, liquid and gaseous forms, and most fundamentally, the difference between formed and unformed substance, and of simple and compound substances and forms. He is aware of the rhythms of day and night and associates them with the movements of the points of light in the sky he sees as heavenly bodies. The regularity of the position and movements of the heavenly bodies prompt in him rudimentary intuitions of number and calendar. Necessarily, because they are so remote, the heavenly bodies appear to Hayy, in contrast to all that is on the island, as permanent (not perishing), as reliable in their courses (not unpredictable), and as pure in their substance and form (not mixed).

But what drives Hayy's intellectual efforts? In part, the need to survive. But the principal motive is his need to achieve self-transcendence. This is the core of lbn Tufayl's purpose and we should follow his argument closely.

The meaning of Hayys experiences

Neither in Hayy bin Yaqzan, nor in Robinson Crusoe, do we find much reflection upon the psychological or emotional dimensions of solitude. Crusoe's solitude worries him because he has to work harder to meet his needs, or because he is more vulnerable being alone, or because he alone cannot exploit the island's full economic potential. To some extent, Crusoe's solitude is relieved by finding a slave.

Hayy's sense of solitude is altogether more profound: it as an onto- logical craving, a deep yearning to know who and what being he is. This craving begins from the moment of the doe's death. He is suddenly aware that no creature nor thing upon the island is like himself. He tries to revive the doe, but cannot do so by any means. He operates upon her corpse in a vain attempt to find and hold the life force which, he hopes, has only temporarily left her body. He continues this quest by other means, operating upon other animals, even upon a living animal, only to realize that when he operates the life force evaporates. Thus he comes to understand that the origin of the life force, the means of its entry into any substance, is of a transcendent character. After careful observation he grasps that all the beings in the world, living or non-living, are subject to change, to beginning and end, all are caused or conditioned. And yet the cause of all of them he cannot see or imagine. Even the relative permanence of the heavenly bodies and their consistency of movement implies a cause anterior to their existence. Their orderliness is an obedience to a high, invisible power.

Because the diverse and abundant elements are mutually related and dependent in a single world or universe-all are (for example) dependent upon light and air-he infers that the high, invisible power is One. For, otherwise, the world would be 'multi- verse' i.e. conflicted and disorderly. Again, having witnessed that the diverse, abundant elements are co-operatively arranged so that the living forms which experience needs have their needs supplied, Hayy infers that the One is Benevolent and Caring. He then feels an intense desire to know Him, to express gratitude to Him, Who is His Creator and Sustainer.

In this way, the instinct to worship is awakened in Hayy. He seeks to imitate the heavenly bodies in their apparent perfection of obedience and purity as sources of light by keeping himself washed and clean; and by tracing circles in his walks so as to imitate their orbiting movements. He imitates the Benevolent by doing good: he frees plants from choking vines, he assists or feeds animals in distress, unblocks streams, etc. He accepts the animal dimensions of his nature as a limiting condition of his life but, in the effort to emulate the stars' purity, he restricts his own interference in nature to the barest minimum, and endeavours to transcend his needs. He eats as little and as infrequently as possible, and devotes all his energy to contemplation of the One.

Hayy's contemplation and yearning are rewarded by experiences of a supra-natural order which, as lbn Tufayl indicates, are beyond the reach of language. Hayy's loneliness ends not by finding a servant but by himself becoming a servant, wholly committed to his Lord and enjoying some measure of communion with Him. Physical and conceptual mastery of the world ripen into a self-mastery through self-transcendence in worship of the One and in service of others (on Hayy's island, the others are animals and plants and water courses).

The saintly sage and human society

Like Robinson Crusoe, Hayy bin Yaqzan also ends with the solitary being reconnected to the 'normal' human world. lbn Tufayl tackles the daunting question of why and how the saintly sage should relate to other human beings. In himself, Hayy can progress no further: he has transcended his own needs to the extent physically possible, he awaits 'certainty', that is, the transition to a higher plane of existence. At just this point, a man (Asal) from a nearby island, seeking a religious retreat, comes to Hayy's island. After the two meet and get over their mutual astonishment, Asal teaches Hayy his language and, through ensuing conversations, realizes how far beyond himself Hayy has progressed on the mystic's path. Hayy acknowledges that the Divinely revealed religion and law to which Asal's people adhere is indeed the Truth conveyed from God by a truthful Messenger, and gladly witnesses to that Truth. As Asal describes the moral and spiritual decay of his people, Hayy is touched by compassion and desires to rescue them from that state. Asal knows from experience that the mass of people do not want to be rescued, but out of respect for Hayy agrees that they should go to the people and serve them as teachers of the mystic's path. They draw the attention of a passing ship which conveys them to the other island.

There, Hayy is received with great reverence and much acclaim. He is dismayed by the people's preoccupation with worldly commerce, their shallowness and lack of perseverance in worship, and their neglect of the Law. He finds that they are willing only to observe, more or less passively, the externals of the religion but not to seek the inward meanings of the rites and recitations they practise outwardly. He does not therefore abandon them; on the contrary: he 'persevered in teaching them day and night and showing them the way of Truth both openly and secretly. But although they were a people who loved the good and wanted the truth, [his] teaching seemed only to induce more and more discord among them. Owing to their lack of native good sense, they did not want to seek the Truth in the way [God] had indicated nor by experiencing Him nor entering by the door He had provided'.

After a time, therefore, Hayy resigns from the task of teaching. He advises the people to stay within the bounds of the religious law as they understand it, to not venture into dimensions of meaning that do not concern them, to follow the traditions of their righteous ancestors and avoid innovations, above all to observe their religious duties with religious seriousness and by no means neglect them for the sake of worldly affairs. Then he and Asal return to their island retreat. Hayy 'sought his holy station through the methods he had used before and was able to return to it. Asal imitated him until he came very close to the same. Both worshipped Allah until certainty came to them.'

The contrasts between Hayy and Crusoe

Crusoe is an adventurer in quest of a fortune who suffers the misfortune of a shipwreck. The island (figuratively, nature) is a hostile environment which he must survive and conquer; an unprofitable wilderness which he must make yield profit. He bends himself to the task and is proved a hero in the strength of his body and will, the will to conquer his situation and turn survival into profit. He does not belong to the island, to nature; he holds himself separate from the other creatures in nature, living or non-living; any people he finds there belong with nature, not with him, they are only 'natives'. He hopes always to get away and take with him the profits from the energy he has invested: that is why, though it is of no use to him for survival on the island, he keeps safe the money he found on the wrecked ship.

When reconnected to the normal human world, Crusoe joins it as a capital-rich entrepreneur. His religious experiences and moral reflections on the island serve, perhaps, to improve his civility and humility in individual personal contacts, but they do not in any way modify his behaviour or expectations with respect to collective affairs. He still desires to make his fortune and considers (again) entering the slave trade to do so. Neither Crusoe's years of solitude nor his companionship with Friday challenge the assumption that European economic expansion and 'improvement' of non-European peoples and their resources is an inevitability and, overall, a good thing.

Hayy is, from the outset, an innocent cherished by nature: the doe cares for and nurtures him. He both belongs and does not belong among the other creatures of the island, living or non-living. His physical composition and structure, his biological needs, identify him as adapted to living with and in the midst of nature. But his physical weaknesses set him apart as one who must live over against nature to survive. His reasoning powers compensate for his weaknesses and he uses his intelligence, as he must, to secure his place at the top of the food chain. But the gift of reason matures into reflection and contemplation. His physical mastery gives him the space and time to survey the whole of his world as a whole. He then realizes that it is an ordered universe reflecting the attributes of its transcendent Creator, among them power within benevolence, individualized beauty within prolific abundance. Hayy's survival and conquest of nature rapidly matures into stewardship as he surrenders himself to worship, to imitating in his being and his actions (as far as he can) the attributes of His Creator. He feels and exercises responsibility over the island, rather than feeling and exercising ownership. In the same way-whereas Crusoe's moral reflections improve him in self-composure and self-restraint so that he is less rash, more prudent, in assessing and taking risks-Hayy's reflections lead him to relinquish self-ownership in favour of self-surrender which is a form of self-transcendence.

When re-joined to the normal human world, Hayy tests that self-transcendence in the role of teacher. The idealised Islamic temperament which Hayy represents cannot be content with responsibility for private, personal conscience. A Muslim is responsible also for the ethos in which other individuals will achieve their consciences. A Muslim is responsible for the whole moral climate, for all the constraints which legal, political and economic structures place upon the aspirations and actions of individuals. The individual must, in the process of perfecting or after perfecting his individual will, venture into the realm of collective life so that all spheres of human action and relationship are, and remain, connected with responsibility to God. That is why, spurred by compassion, Hayy leaves the island to do his wider duty as far as the prevailing conditions will permit it. Ultimately, of course, people are not saved collectively but individually. Therefore, ultimately, having done his best, Hayy leaves human society. He leaves the people with the warning that they should adhere to their religious duties in preference to sectarianism and worldly preoccupations. He then returns to his solitary attendance upon 'certainty'.

In summary form, we may say that Crusoe (for all that he is the energetic European adventurer) lives in his life and in the natural world; he does not get beyond himself or the natural world. Hayy lives through his life, and through the natural world, and he passes beyond both. Robinson Crusoe is a realistic narrative, an early modern romance whose highest reward for the reader is understanding of the individual self, the emotional or psychological persona achieved through the story. Hayy bin Yaqzan is an allegory, a medieval philosophical fable whose highest reward for the reader is understanding the Divine Compassion in the creation of human life in all its vicissitudes and triumphs. It must also be noted that Crusoe is in this world, famous rich and relatively powerful; Hayy in this world is absolutely poor, indeed he has all but left this world behind before his death.